The Last Great Game

How the 1992 Duke and Kentucky teams took a trip into college basketball immortality.

The Last Great Game By Gene Wojciechowski Blue Rider Press 320 pp.

An unforgettable moment in college basketball stands poised for a new wave of nostalgia when March Madness returns in a couple of months.

In the weeks ahead, even the most casual fan will find it all but impossible to avoid highlight clips showing Grant Hill throwing a 75-foot inbounds strike to Christian Laettner, who caught the ball, dribbled once, and sank the winning shot, all in 2.1 seconds.

The 104-103 overtime victory sent Duke to the Final Four and an eventual second straight national championship, but few people remember any of those subsequent games. Instead, Laettner’s last-second jump shot against Kentucky looms above anything else that occurred in the 1992 NCAA tournament, or almost any other moment in the rich lore of brackets and buzzer-beaters.

Many have billed it the greatest college basketball game in history. Twenty years later, it comes under closer inspection in The Last Great Game, veteran sportswriter Gene Wojciechowski’s account of the players, coaches, and even referees on the court that day at The Spectrum in Philadelphia. Wojciechowski offers a nice blend of past and present perspectives as he tells the story of how an unlikely classic came to be, how it played out, and how it lives on. Like many other sports books, this one bears a subtitle that lacks merit (“Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds that Changed Basketball”), since there is little evidence that basketball itself was changed by the game. It is more than enough that the game was marvelous, memorable, and changed – or at least enhanced – the lives of so many of the participants.

But those are minor complaints in a book that is both fun and thorough without getting tedious.

Sportswriters and fans, not to mention ESPN and the other networks that show the endless series of major pro and college sporting events, seem prone to overhyping every player and every game in the current era of infinite highlight loops, constant analysis, and screen-bottom scrolls. So much so that even a game from 1992 – the regional final between defending national champion Duke and heavy underdog Kentucky – feels quaint by comparison.

To be sure, the climactic Hill-Laettner clip of what many believe is the greatest game ever played is familiar even to those fans who were too young or weren’t even alive at the time, but, by today’s standards, the reaction was tame. ESPN didn’t dub it an “Instant Classic” and replay the game multiple times during the following week, though it did, of course, show the highlights on “SportsCenter” in constant rotation. No Twitter tag was created labeling it “#grtstgmevr” and clips of Laettner’s shot weren’t swapped instantly on iPhones in the minutes and hours after the game ended.

Those things didn’t happen because the technology didn’t exist, but the prevalence of such accoutrements today makes it all the harder to discern what is memorable because of accomplishment and what is memorable because of mere ubiquity. Such are the concerns of the modern sports fan and opinion makers, often left to ponder how each generation’s subsequent media age shapes the eternal debates: the best plays, the best players, the best games, the best moments, and so on.

In the case of Duke-Kentucky, there is no need for second-guessing. Take, for instance, the opinion of Len Elmore, the CBS analyst who called the game that day. Elmore told Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan Duke-Kentucky was the greatest game the sport had ever seen and he should know. Elmore played for Maryland in the 1974 Atlantic Coast Conference championship against North Carolina State, the previous consensus standard-bearer.

Wojciechowski makes the book richer by taking time to establish what is much less obvious today than it was in 1992: Kentucky basketball was on the edge of oblivion. A series of recruiting scandals and other misdeeds left the program in tatters, forced out coach Eddie Sutton, and convinced many players to transfer to other schools to avoid NCAA penalties sure to be imposed on the team.

Sports Illustrated all but declared the program dead three years before the overtime regional final against Duke nearly put Kentucky in the Final Four. Before and after that shameful period, the Wildcats have been – along with UCLA, Kansas, North Carolina, and a few others – among the most dominant teams in college basketball. (The Wildcats reached the Final Four last season and currently rank among the top 10 teams in the country.)

Reeling from the scandal, in 1989 the school hired C.M. Newton, who played for Adolph Rupp on Kentucky’s 1951 national championship team, as athletic director to restore the program’s integrity and credentials. Despite the certainty of sanctions, Newton, a widely respected college coach at Vanderbilt before taking over the Kentucky athletic department, lured hotshot coach Rick Pitino from the NBA to take on the reclamation project.

Pitino arrived as a brash New Yorker in bluegrass country but quickly won converts with his predictions of a rapid return to basketball prominence. Four players – Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, Sean Woods, and John Pelphrey – would survive the end of the disgraced Sutton era and the grueling regimen installed by Pitino to revive the Kentucky program. The odds remained considerable, as Pitino’s first Wildcats team lacked a player taller than 6-feet-7-inches.

It didn’t matter. The players who stayed, along with Pitino’s blend of basketball smarts, relentless drive, and motivation, carried Kentucky through a two-year penalty preventing the team from playing in the NCAA tournament. Pitino looked to New York for his savior, signing blue-chip prospect Jamal Mashburn early in his tenure. Mashburn and the four holdovers would form the heart of the 1991-92 Wildcats team, a squad known as The Unforgettables after the unexpected tournament run and near-upset of Duke.

As for the Blue Devils, Wojciechowski details Duke's rise to basketball dynasty under Mike Krzyzewski, who still coaches Duke and recently set the record for career wins in college basketball.

Known as Coach K, Krzyzewski landed the Duke job in 1980 at age 33. Despite the endorsement of his mentor, Indiana coach Bobby Knight, and a strong reputation, Krzyzewski proved a controversial choice since he had just posted a 9-17 record the previous season at Army. Upon his hiring, one local sportscaster introduced the future Coach K as “Mike Prishevski.” Starting salary: $40,000.

By the time Duke played Kentucky in 1992, Krzyzewski had built a program renowned not just for consistent appearances in the Final Four and dozens of wins, but also a squeaky-clean reputation and a track record of accompanying academic success.

The 1991-92 Blue Devils, as defending national champions, were the rock stars of college hoops. The versatile Hill, the ultra-competitive (and, to many, obnoxious) Laettner and fearless point guard Bobby Hurley became love-them-or-hate-them attractions. All of them offer insightful anecdotes, from locker-room feuds (Wojciechowski labels the Hurley-Laettner relationship “the Lennon/McCartney of the Blue Devils”) to the racial perceptions and comparisons of the Duke players and Michigan’s all-freshmen Fab Five team that played for the championship.

The book offers a strong reminder that the game was great throughout, not just for its finish. There were nine lead changes or ties during the last five minutes of regulation and Kentucky led four times in overtime. Laettner, in the opinion of some, should not have even been in the game to win it. Earlier, he stepped on a Kentucky player and drew a technical foul. Says Elmore: “My honest opinion of Christian Laettner? I thought he was kind of smarmy in some ways.”

When the shot went in, Krzyzewski didn’t immediately celebrate. He hugged Farmer as the Kentucky player collapsed in agony in front of the Duke bench. “I couldn’t … it’s almost like I couldn’t stand to see that kid like that,” Krzyzewski says, watching a replay of the game with the author.

Hill, who still plays in the NBA, reveals just how improbable Duke’s win was. Woods had just banked in an all-but-impossible shot over Laettner to give Kentucky a 1-point lead with 2.1 seconds left. Krzyzewski told his players during the ensuing timeout that they would win (a familiar tactic), but, as Wojciechowski recounts, few believed him.

“Honestly, I had checked out going back to the huddle,” Hill tells Wojciechowski. “Literally, I was thinking, You know what, I guess I’ll go to Myrtle Beach next week.”

Instead, Hill, Laettner and Duke took a trip into college basketball immortality.

Erik Spanberg is a regular contributor to the Monitor's book section.

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